The week before Christmas last saw Stormont Finance Minister Simon Hamilton seek a judicial review following a decision taken by agriculture counterpart Michelle O’Neill (pictured) in relation to the funding of the next Rural Development Programme. As it turned out, he won the day. But irrespective of the decision, there is little doubt that the obvious failure of the two ministers to find common ground marked the beginning of a new era for ‘agri-politics’ in this part of the world.
In essence, the DUP had thrown down a marker to the effect that farming is now a central part of the political battleground in Northern Ireland. And so is has turned out to be. Recent months have been marked by an intense debate within the farming sector on how best to implement the new CAP support measures, which are due to kick in at the beginning of next year.
Up for grabs is the not insignificant matter of who gets the £300 million made available to local agriculture annually from Brussels under the auspices of the CAP. Last year, it was agreed that Europe should move to an area-based payment system. And here in Northern Ireland, this has kicked off a row between hill farmers – who are due to be the main beneficiaries of a straight areas-based payment system – and their more intensive lowland counterparts who will lose out in equal measure.
Politics now comes into play given that Sinn Féin wants to see the immediate introduction of the new measures while the unionist parties favour the splitting of Northern Ireland into two regions, for the purposes of the new CAP model, and a ten-year transition leading to their full implementation.
The other factor to be factored in is the timetable that has been laid down by the European Commission for a final decision to be made on this crucially important issue. Brussels must be notified officially by the beginning of August otherwise the default scenario will kick in. This would see the full implementation of the area payment system across Northern Ireland on 1 January next.
Unionist sceptics will quickly point out that it would suit Michelle O’Neill for a ‘no decision’ scenario to unfold at Stormont. For her part, the Farm Minister has said that she will take the CAP reform issue to the full Executive. The question is when?
The other issue that comes into the mix is the Executive’s response to the Going for Growth document, published by the Agri-Food Strategy Board twelve months ago. This has been profiled as the blueprint for the agri-food industries moving forward. But the bottom line, in financial terms, is a requirement of a pump-priming commitment of some £400 million by Stormont to make it all work.
The big players in the context of this debate are the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. It now seems apparent that the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister Arlene Foster will not play ball on the Going for Growth issue until Michelle O’Neill brings the CAP issue to the Executive.
Throughout all the years of the Troubles, agriculture was deemed to be neutral ground for the various political parties. And even during Michelle Gildernew’s tenure as Farm Minister, there was a broad degree of acceptance that the decisions she took were for the general betterment of the farming and food industries.
This state of affairs is now fast changing. In theory, there is no reason why farming and food issues should become part of the mainstream political debate in Northern Ireland. The only practical downside for farmers and food companies is the extenuated timetable that will be required to get decisions taken at Stormont on their behalf.